Stores may get to list web sites on signs in windows

By Paige Gance

The Lexington Planning Commission has unanimously recommended that city council amend its sign ordinance to “bring Lexington into the 21st century,” but one group objects to the changes.

Proposed changes would allow downtown shop owners to include phone numbers and web addresses on their store signs and window fronts.  A number of merchants are in favor of the change.

According to the current sign ordinance: “Signs allowed in these districts shall be identification signs only. They may incorporate a firm’s name and logo and a description of the business or service but shall not include advertising slogans, telephone numbers, web sites, or e-mail addresses.”

Planning Commission member Camille Miller said director Bill Blatter is drafting the formal language of the amendment. “Merchants ought to be able to put that information out in this day and age,” Miller said.

In the meantime, the planning commission will discuss the changes with the Architectural Review Board, which oversees design standards.

Fred Kirchner, chairman of the ARB, said the board opposes the revisions.

“This is a historic district,” he said, “not another strip mall.”  He described the ARB as having a more conservative and preservationist mindset than the Planning Commission. The historic district encompasses roughly 12 blocks in the center of the city.

The issue arose when Dick Emrey and Gregg Amonette of the Emrey and Amonette insurance agency put up a window-front sign that included their company’s website address. The Planning Commission considered the changes in the ordinance at its meeting last week.

Gregg Amonette, a 1975 graduate of Washington and Lee University, said he received a letter from the ARB that said someone had complained about the sign and asked him to submit a formal sign proposal.

The ARB, which is charged with enforcing the city’s design guidelines, initially postponed making a decision, but eventually denied the sign application based on size restrictions.

Kirchner said the ARB also wanted to use this instance to bolster its argument against changing the ordinance to allow web addresses.

“It’s a slippery slope,” he said.  The ARB has no official voice in city council, but Kirchner said if the council does not ask what the ARB thinks, then “we’ll tell them.”

Amonette said he and his business partner receive traffic through their web site and that “overregulation kills a healthy business environment.”  The sign, in old-fashioned lettering, also fits with the aesthetic and historic feel of Lexington, he said.

“If our sign does not qualify in that respect, nothing does.”

Many downtown Lexington shop owners are in favor of the proposed changes. At the Lexington Community Festival in early September, 59 people signed Emrey and Amonette’s petition to allow web addresses and phone numbers on signs.

Tracey Lackey, owner of Intimate U, said Lexington should uphold its standards but modernize at the same time.  She said adding this information to her sign would increase interest in her shop.

Mary Jo Morman, co-owner of Celtic Tides, said she favors allowing phone numbers and web addresses “as long as it’s done tastefully.”  She would also update her sign if the ordinance changed.

Her husband, John Morman, co-owner of the store, said that when phones became popular in the early 20th century, businesses would display phone numbers on their signs, lending historical precedent to the change.  Special Collections in W&L’s Leyburn Library contains several pictures of stores advertising their phone numbers, at the time only two or three digits.

Several stores in the historic district already list web addresses or phone numbers in small type on their signs or window fronts.

The final version of the change needs to go back to the Planning Commission for approval. Then, it would go to Lexington City Council for its consideration.